Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Election to Remember

Imagine an election season in which the campaigning pols from the major parties felt the need to go out of their way to show their support for the arts community. And not just lip service to the "importance of art in our society" (and because politics is politics, any promises may be end up being only lip service after the election, of course), but a full-out effort by the powers that be to ensure that their party's platform is known to be more arts friendly than the other party's platform.

It's nearly impossible to imagine in the United States, where the GOP viciously uses the arts as a wedge issue and the Democrats are usually too busy looking for their spines to say much more than "Art..., art....oh yeah, it's here on page 64...uh yes, we're in favor of being supportive of communities that like art." But in the UK at the moment, where an election is under way, both the Conservative and the Labour parties are doing just that: working hard to align themselves as the "more-pro-arts" party than the other.

Now, even having lived in the UK for three years, I still don't understand how their elections work. I think I know that a Prime Minister must call for elections every so often, and that they have wide latitude to do so within a window that is generally selected to work to the current ruling party's advantage. I think I also know that the party who wins the most seats in the House of Commons (get a bit fuzzy on the details here) gets to be the ruling party (winning the Prime Minister and cabinet positions prize). But beyond that the whole process resembles nothing so much to me as a flash mob of highly caffeinated feral cats.

Still, what's happening in the UK is so encouraging, that I hope it sparks a wave of reconsideration in the US. The UK's Conservative Party's 2010 manifesto, just to give you a flavor of how it stands in stark contrast to anything the conservatives in the US would normally be associated with, states:
The Conservative Party is committed to fostering an environment in which sport, the arts, and the creative industries can flourish, and in which people can take control of the most enjoyable aspects of their lives.
In the Republican party's 2008 platform, for comparison, the word "art" or "arts" don't appear at all. Even the word "culture" is used only in the context of "military culture" or "culture of radical terror" or "faith and family, culture and commerce," etc. The only time the word "creative" appears was when discussing how "to master the global economy."

What the Conservative Party's embrace of the importance of the arts has spawned is an even more enthusiastic that usual alignment with the creatives within the Labour Party's manifesto. As the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins reports:
Perhaps it is a response to the Conservatives having taken the initiative on the arts in recent months; perhaps it is at last a recognition that being associated with culture isn't necessarily a byword for elitism; perhaps it is just a cynical recognition that while the arts may not be a vote winner, by ignoring them you provoke the ire of a small but extremely noisy arts lobby.

Whatever the reason, the arts and culture are prominent in the Labour manifesto to a quite unprecedented extent - at least as long as I have been reading Labour manifestos.

I'm actually just world-wise enough to not really care what spurred the major parties in the UK to suck up so much to the arts community. Not looking that gift horse in the mouth seems to have no downside at all to me. Sure their posturing might lead to funds being mismanaged here or there. Sure someone will argue there are other priorities over here or over there more deserving of attention. But all of democracy is a push-pull exercise, and for quite some time the arts have been pushed out of the limelight much more than they've been pulled into it, so it's heartening to see it balanced out a bit.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, elections often serve to sear into the consciousness of the generation just coming into the voting age and others paying attention for the first time, what it is their government should be doing, how it is their society operates, and what the priorities highlighted during a campaign say about them and their culture. Collectively this can have an impact that lasts for quite some time. In that regard, I am highly encouraged. Higgins nails the potentially lasting message in all this:
For the time being, though, I'm pretty amazed that culture gets such star billing – and not just as a branch of the "creative industries", but also as a contributor to the "common good" and as something that "stand[s] for more than material success".

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a brilliant tactical move by the Torys. They can co-opt this, and have little fear of being called "elitist" since their party is noted for it.

But, cynicism aside, so much of the British real (non financial) economy is very much "high touch/creative" and fostering and promoting this only help creating a self-feeding environment of such design.

And the bulk of your constituents are likely to be of that class. And it helps recognize a part of your solid supporters that are not busy selling dangerous insurance policies on shaky derivatives and destabilizing the world financial system.

4/15/2010 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed - Generally speaking, European conservatives are like our Democrats and European Liberals (the mainstream liberals - not socialists etc.) are basically what you and I wish our Democrats were - more progressive. It's not really surprising to me that a conservative European party is supporting the arts. The do the same in Spain, France, etc.

We're the "lucky" ones with ultra-conservatives as the mainstream conservative party. Europe dealt with fascism, so the right ain't so right these days over there.

4/15/2010 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

I agree government needs to support the arts but in the case of Europe this comes as a compensation I believe. I may be wrong but I think NY is still the arts capital of the world not because there is more talent coming from here but because there is more support from the private sector in the US than anywhere else, therefore artists and galleries are flocking here from all over. They may receive subsidized living expenses and/or education in their own countries, but to really succeed they must sell and they come here for that purpose. This may explain some of the trends in art which are dictated these days by collectors not by artists, probably due to other things you have discussed before such as the power accumulated by global corporations, wiping out the individual.

But in any case, in this country there still isn't a Secretary of Culture, is there? There was talk about it before the election, but I don't see anything actually happen, I guess that's one more 'election before and after' thing.

4/16/2010 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger judith braun said...

Indeed I want Art to be respected and appreciated for it's importance to society...here, everywhere... because without it we'd just have a bunch of stuff vibrating in space... it's that important to the "life" of the universe...BUT I guess I never get totally behind too broad government funding issues because somewhere in the mix of what works to keep the vitality of it /Art at full burn is that it is an autonomous force, that seeks to thrive in spite of everything. I know this is a bit starry eyed, but I "believe" there's a urgency that art maintains of its own accord. If either politicians or corporations try to own it too much it fights back. OMG I think my wanting small govt in the arts is like being a conservative in the USA! Which I'm NOT. I know museums and arts organizations need funding....so I better shut up.

4/17/2010 06:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Capitalism has commodified everything and art is its perpetual victim. There are some essentials required for a healthy life which should be as widely and freely distributed as possible, beyond that everyone should have an equal opportunity to better theirself.

Competition in marketplaces does not always bring about the best product, especially when larger established routes limit the opportunities of smaller more inventive competitors. If government can level the playing field and promote previously unseen ideas, then YES, please bring it on.

If art will always be judged by its selling price the true meaning of it's power will always be misunderstood.

4/17/2010 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Whitey Flagg said...

Governments will be provided with the choice of either accommodating themselves to co-ordinating proliferating human variety or seeking to reduce that variety by repressive measures

4/17/2010 03:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

It was reported last week that the Library of Congress had acquired the archives of Twitter for posterity ...
now I like the idea that in some places it is required by law that any published book be also submitted to the government for posterity. Yet would it be of value to encourage a similar aspect in the visual arts? Should a digital derivative be archived in a government funded system to maintain a digital patrimony? It is done for archaeological sites of significance.

I'm guessing the rational for selecting Twitter's cultural conversations over the arts dialogue has something to do with the perceived social value between the two. I have a bias for the arts, but would a digital archive move the arts towards a more "respected" position - seems to me this has been a historical contention since arts inception, maybe its a prerequisite for art to exist?

4/18/2010 07:43:00 AM  

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